Ad Astra desperately wants to be spoken of in the same breath as Kubrick’s 2001, writes MacDara Conroy
There’s a scene quite early on in Ad Astra where Brad Pitt’s character, a celebrated astronaut tasked with a top-secret mission to the edge of the solar system, has a sit-down meeting with three military top brass: two men, one of whom does much of the talking, and a black woman (LisaGay Hamilton, from The Practice and a million other credits) who sits to Pitt’s other side and gets one perfunctory line in the conversation. There’s no real reason why the woman couldn’t have been the one given the talking to do; this is just how director (and co-writer) James Gray decided he wanted to do it.
It stuck out to me, this decision; there was probably little thought to the message that would be received. But broadly, the film is being apprehended as another cliched epic of stoic men and emotional (and sidelined) women. Steve Rose writes in the Guardian about Ad Astra in the context of the ‘toxic masculinity’ of space films and he’s not exactly wrong, especially when contemplating that Ruth Negga’s character — the one woman who gets anything like a substantial role, albeit over maybe two scenes in the whole two hours — really only exists to hurt Pitt’s, to take out on him her bitterness.
But it’s not the only problem with a project that undoubtedly has ambitions on a universal scale — and certainly looks the part, with some breathtaking visuals — but ultimately doesn’t go beyond a very specific man’s relationship with his very specific father. Indeed, a recurring motif is a voiceover by Pitt’s character which underscores exactly how much of the story is trapped inside his head, and his experience of events. It’s hard as an audience to be moved by goings-on when the main protagonist is defined (and repeatedly so) by his unflappability.
Max Richter soundtrack and all, Ad Astra is a film that so desperately wants to be spoken of in the same breath as Kubrick’s 2001, to the point of shamelessly ‘homaging’ it to a ridiculous degree. Brad Pitt travels to the moon by commercial space flight, just like Dr Heywood Floyd! He removes computer gubbins from a moodily lit room, just like Dave pulling out HAL’s chips! There’s even a set-piece with angry apes, for crying out loud.
But all this referencing is hollow when the story twists the big questions about the nature of humanity posed by Kubrick and Clarke into the mundane relationship between a father (a very elderly looking Tommy Lee Jones) who puts his selfish interests above the son who pines for his love. Truly going beyond would be the child who realises you don’t actually have to love your parents, but clearly that notion doesn’t square with Gray’s pat sentimentality.
Ad Astra opens nationwide in cinemas and IMAX on Wednesday September 18th